As the the winter storm Nemo was drifting out to sea, chef instructor Melanie Underwood was on the phone doing damage control. The epic storm had delayed a major cookie dough delivery from Jacqueline’s Bakery in Massachusetts that she was counting on for the volunteers gathering to bake that afternoon for the international non-profit called Cookies for Kids’ Cancer.
Underwood, an instructor at New York City’s Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) and a volunteer for the global bake sale fundraising organization, was intent on tracking down the dough and re-scheduling the bake-off to later in the day. The cookies were a big thank you to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for its role in pediatric cancer research and care.
This grass roots and now world wide organization is a perfect mirror of Melanie Underwood’s own passion for how powerful the act of baking can be– a passion which eventually led her to a career as an instructor at the former Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School where she has worked for seventeen years.
Growing up on a farm, Melanie’s childhood of collecting eggs, milking cows, and composting gave her a wonderful appreciation of where food comes from. Life on a Virginia farmstead surrounded by extended family, especially a grandmother who prepared a dessert daily with the fresh ingredients from the farm, gave her a firm foundation in baking. At a very early age she could fashion a pie crust from memory and whip up a mean pâte a choux.
That joy of baking eventually blossomed into a job at a local bakeshop followed by brownie and cookie baking for the farmers market. Post-college, Melanie made her way to a Washington DC area hotel where she apprenticed as a volunteer working under a pastry chef and entered a number of pastry competitions. With French pastry techniques under her belt, she moved on to broaden her culinary experiences at the Four Seasons Hotel, the Plaza, and Torre de Pisa in NYC during the early 90’s. Eventually, Melanie’s experience, talent, and knowledge led to a position as an educator at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education.
Her very popular courses at ICE offer instruction at every level of cooking expertise, from professionals to raw beginners, and include classes on soufflés, fish and shellfish, cupcakes, sweet and savory pies, cocktails, chocolate, and healthy cooking. (For details about her courses at ICE visit Melanie’s Cooking Classes.)
Interviewing Melanie at her home in Queens, I was served a memorable slice of apple pie as well as a colorful fruit tart with English cream. After enjoying dessert first, we concluded the interview with lunch– Melanie’s Pulled Pork and Kohlrabi Cole Slaw. Both recipes are found in the OTK’s RECIPES menu link.
Fresh Fruit Tart With Pastry Creme
Interview with Melanie Underwood
OTK: What is one of your fondest food memories?
MUK: I made eclairs for my dad. He was out on the tractor. I prepared the pastry, the cream, and the chocolate sauce. I ran across the field and presented it to him on the tractor. I was so proud, and I think that was key. Experiences like that build confidence. Many people are much better cooks than they realize. Confidence in cooking is primary.
OTK: How would you describe the students you teach?
MUK: I teach adults mostly. My mother and daughter courses are also very popular. I often teach absolute beginners, couples, and career chefs, too.
OTK: What do you think contributes most to developing a person’s interest and understanding of food?
MUK: It’s starts at a young age. I wonder if people really let kids fully into their kitchen. A lot of values are taught in the kitchen along with knowledge about food and cooking. I have two kids. My oldest is 15, and he often cooks for himself. He even makes cheese for his pizza. My kids are comfortable in the kitchen and are good eaters. They’ve eaten anchovies out of the jar since they were little!
OTK: What do you feed your own family?
MUK: I make them pancakes practically every day. I like grilling and braising, especially pulled pork. As much as I can, I go chemical and antibiotic free. It’s better for the environment. I grew up on a farm. I’m not into starch much. My starch growing up was mostly lima beans!
OTK: How would you describe the difference between cooking and baking?
MUK: I trained as a baker, but I found that when I started cooking, it totally opened up another side of my personality. With baking you have to measure, be precise. Cooking is more flexible, even though I feel more creative when I am baking. I think cooking made me a better person and broadened my skills so I did not get stuck in a rut.
OTK: What was it like working in the big hotels?
MUK: When I was at the Four Seasons, we all did everything. When I was in the bread bakery, I scaled the dough and learned to be exact each time. I was exposed to all levels of preparation of bread and pastries. The bakery tasks and production were all divided up based on the day’s pastry menu. All the amenities were prepared as well as the specialities, and then on the pastry line every dessert was made to order and assembled with emphasis on food styling. There is a real hierarchy mindset, typical of training in a big hotel kitchen. The executive chef is like the CEO of the kitchen.
OTK: What inspires you to cook?
MUK: I draw my creativity from everyday life, but it is hard to pinpoint. Single ingredients can be inspirational. When I was at the Four Seasons, we prepared a dinner where all the courses featured tomatoes. I love lemon, especially preserved lemons and Meyer lemons. Citrus, in general is a favorite of mine. And I am inspired by my microplane! You can grate so many things with it– like lemon zest and grated chocolate. You can’t over zest. I also love to go to the market for inspiration. Sometimes I put all the seasonal produce from my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) out on the table and come up with fun new recipes.
OTK: Have you ever considered opening a restaurant?
MUK: People ask me that all the time. Only if someone else will fund it and get up at 3:00 in the morning! I love teaching and being a culinary educator.
OTK: As a culinary educator, what are the goals you have for your students? Do you have specific expectations of your students in the kitchen classroom?
MUK: First, I want my students to be respectful of food. I insist that they try their wares. I also want them to get over any performance anxieties and learn to work in teams. I ask them to share why they are taking the class. Some of my students are not really comfortable in a kitchen yet, and that is why they are taking the course. There are lots of group dynamics and sometimes people’s insecurities and anxieties can come out so I provide lots of positive reinforcement.
It can be fun to cook with others, but I also want them to have individual confidence and, most of all, to have fun. Ultimately, I want them to learn to cook without using recipes, so I tell students in the 12 week classes that it is important to practice at home in order to get better. It’s like learning a language. I give them various exercises to do at home.
Other advice is “clean as you go.” Also, I tell students to invest in a good scale.
I just want them to relax and have a good time. When you take the time to cook for others, they are not going to judge you.
OTK: Do you teach much about the science of cooking and about technique?
MUK: I do include some, but I really focus on hands-on learning. Pastry classes often require more information about technique. Some students really want (and need) to know why certain chemical reactions are happening and are quite interested in the science behind the art. But experience is the best teacher.
OTK: What are some of your favorite cookbooks?
MUK: I love the more traditional Fannie Farmer Baking Book. I like instructional books. I also like the Heidi Swanson 101 Cookbooks that emphasize healthy eating and Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food. I prefer any cookbooks that are informational and have an instructional bend.
OTK: If you were to write a cookbook , what would it be about?
MUK: Cupcakes. It would be recipe driven and technique based. Cupcakes are still extremely popular, and my class on cupcakes is selling out like crazy with waiting lists.
OTK: Do you have a favorite style of cuisine?
MUK: For eating, authentic Indian cuisine. I have a lot of talented Indian friends. I want to be able to cook Indian food and to use my new masala dabba and make my own curries. I love southern food, but I don’t cook in the specific southern style. A lot of my cooking is French based due to my training.
OTK: How would you sum up your philosophy for good eating?
MUK: I’m all for grazing. I can be preachy sometimes because I grew up on a farm. I just want to get people excited about food. (Trader Joe’s is okay– especially if you don’t cook.)
There is a connectivity between cooking and life. When you grow up on a farm you see how growing, cooking, and recycling scraps into compost that you then use to plant more food or use to feed the animals is a life cycle.
Today it’s harder for kids to make this connection to where our food comes from, but they can find it, for example, at a farmers market. And I think teaching baking and cooking makes that connection for everyone.
Before my departure, Melanie learned that the cookie dough was en route and would arrive in the late afternoon. The volunteers assembled at 5:00 to bake and package the treats for the hospital.
I found Melanie to be an inspirational culinary educator who was dedicated to sharing her talents not only in the classroom but also in the form of community outreach. Nothing like a chef with a mission. Thanks, Melanie, for talking with Outtathekitchen.com. –ME Lorden
Photos by MELorden